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By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
John Urbahns is a calm, soft-spoken man who works now for Greater Fort Wayne, but previously was one of the City’s leaders in economic development. He is highly regarded, on a friendly basis with most in government or business, and kittens rub against his leg when he strides resolutely along Calhoun. That’s why the rise in color in his face during a recent city council meeting, and the trembling muscles around his mouth, seemed so very unusual. What could have made Mr. Urbahns so angry?
His testimony at council was the annual pro forma appearance of a representative of Greater Fort Wayne to explain the past year’s glories or failures, and offer overly optimistic goals of the coming year, in exchange for $250,000 from the city.
Mr. Urbahns had just wrapped up his upbeat slide show when he was blindsided by Councilmen Jason Arp to his left, and Paul Ensley to his right.
Mr. Arp wanted to know why GFW hadn’t been required to bid their services through the normal competitive bid process for professional services. GFW, after all, is providing a professional service, so the question made sense.
Problem was it was really a question for the City, not Mr. Urbahns. He had been ambushed and Mr. Arp continued to drive the questions home. Mr. Urbahn’s was just a foil so Mr. Arp could make his points.
A more savvy, constructive politician would have conducted a bit of due diligence to determine whether his points were valid. The current contract is, after all, a matter of public record, readily available from our able city clerk, printed in tidy columns with crisp black letters on white paper, and easily accessible to all members of the community, including councilmen. Furthermore, council has a researcher to compile relevant materials, and an august lawyer on retainer to offer wise counsel.
Instead, Mr. Arp had seemingly decided to play “gotcha” with Mr. Urbahns in an effort to publicly embarrass him, and moreover to attack GFW.
At the subsequent council meeting the city’s attorney calmly explained the specific clauses in the law authorizing the current relationship with GFW. Mr. Arp was both beaten and angry.
This is only the latest venomous moment among key players indicating that the local economic development waters are poisoned.
One might remember that GFW boss Eric Doden threatened to unseat Councilman Jehl if he didn’t get with GFW’s economic development program. You might also remember that Mr. Doden aggressively demanded control of the Riverfront project while wagging his finger in the face of Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer.
Meanwhile, the Young Turks on council, Ensley and Arp, vote against nearly every economic development ordinance proffered by the city and backed by GFW…as a matter of dogma. And some councilmen sneer loudly that they could do a better job of mayoring than the mayor and are lining up behind challengers, two of whom sit on council. Everyone seems to be channeling Machiavelli.
Furthermore, Mr. Arp, to the irritation of many, called for a state audit of certain city books, and famously introduced legislation to end the corporate property tax without suggesting how to replace those millions of dollars that support our schools and other public institutions.
What led to the most recent gotcha moment were comments by Mr. Arp at a tax board meeting in which he challenged fundamentals of the local economic development approach. In rebuttal, GFW distributed a “private” memo to councilmen that suddenly became public information when a testy Mr. Arp cited it at the table. Soon the political glitterati was pouring over the charges and counter-charges. And, if that were not enough, the president of GFW all but declared war on the four Young Turks on council by wondering in print whether only a change of some members could save the economic development day. Remember Mr. Doden’s threat to Mr. Jehl? GFW’s president further went on to deride Mr. Arp’s arguments as “bogus.” In his parry and riposte, Mr. Arp called GFW a “Frankenstein” and snarled the organization was riddled with inherent conflicts of interest.
These are supposed to be our team players working as one glorious, self-sacrificing team with only the good of the community in mind, that win-one-for-the-Gipper spirit!
The long slide of economic decline that started with the Harvester move has been staunched, reversed, and is about to come to flower with the Legacy, the work of Mayors Henry, Lebamoff, Helmke, Moses and Richard, the stewardship of many on council, and the marketing of Fort Wayne by the once many development groups that were melded into one, the GFW. And, add labor leaders and citizen activists who have done so much to keep citizens in the mix.
Taken as a whole it is the greatest boom since Harvester, Zollner, and Magnavox came to town some 90 years ago.
Mr. Arp is correct to challenge the insider-prone status quo. He is correct to reason that the property tax is a drag on productivity. He is correct in questioning the relationship between the city and its vendors, namely, GFW. Mr. Arp is an intelligent man, and quite amiable, but his pursuit of dogmatic purity, and his bull-in-the-china shop approach are neither winning friends nor resolving matters. Consequently, he has done more than his share to poison the waters. But, he is not alone – GFW also bears a responsibility with its demanding approach.
Note: the mayor has avoided this fray. As the top elected official in the area he has the job to build consensus and meld a team strategy. Now would be a good time for him to refocus the energies of the bulls-in-the-china-shop, otherwise our momentum will fade and a dozen promising projects will die. Picture GE as a graffiti-ridden, fenced wasteland.